Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I don’t know how many of my readers have been in a public high school lately, but one of the things I’ve noticed in the schools I’ve been in is the presence of “safe space” signs around the school. They began in response to incidents that happen routinely in schools where a student who is gay, or even thought to be gay, is harrassed and bullied and often assaulted. The signs often have a rainbow motif to them and pink triangles and they say something like this:

This is a safe space to be who you are. This sign affirms that support and resources are available for you in this school.

Along with the appearance of such signs there has also been a remarkable trend in starting “gay-straight clubs” in schools around the country. These are student clubs that provide a forum for gay and straight students can express their support for one another and take a stand against such bullying. In my view, this is a good thing indeed. It’s great to see young people standing up for their own dignity and and that of their friends and saying that they won’t allow anti-gay bigotry to go unanswered.

Of course, others disagree and see this as an endorsement of homosexuality and a threat to God, mom and apple pie. Around the nation, conservative state legislators have tried to ban such clubs but they keep running into the Equal Access Act, a Federal law that forbids schools from discriminating among non-curriculum clubs – the same law, ironically, that allows students in public schools to form Bible clubs as well (and rightly so in both cases). Our old pal Sen. Buttars in Utah is trying to pass such a bill right now. And in San Leandro, California, a school is having a bit of an uproar because some teachers are refusing to put such signs in their classrooms:

A holy war over homosexuality has erupted on the campus of a San Francisco Bay area high school, as five teachers are refusing orders to display a pro-“gay” banner because of their religious beliefs.

The five teachers have not made any public statements at this point, but I suspect there is probably a lawsuit coming, probably backed by the Alliance Defense Fund or the Thomas More Law Center, claiming that requiring them to post such a poster violates their religious freedom. It’s a case they will likely lose. The statement on the posters is not a religious statement and it is made to achieve a perfectly reasonable and constitutional interest, reducing harrassment of students and fostering respect for diversity. The only thing that makes it a religious matter in the eyes of those who are refusing to put the poster up is their religious objections to it.

It would be no different than a Jewish or Muslim teacher refusing to post the school’s lunch menu because it contained pork. More importantly, the classroom is not owned by the teacher, it is owned by the school and the school may put up such signs in the service of a legitimate state interest. A teacher may no more refuse to go along with it than they may refuse to teach something in the curriculum that they object to on religious grounds. By becoming a public school teacher, you agree to abide by the government’s guidelines for what can be taught.


  1. #1 Mark Paris
    January 26, 2006

    Try substituting “black” for “gay” (and “white” for “straight”) and see how it sounds. It’s not quite a one-to-one analogy, but it’s close.

  2. #2 Dave S.
    January 26, 2006

    Of course, others disagree and see this as an endorsement of homosexuality and a threat to God, mom and apple pie.

    Mmmmmmmmm…apple pie.

  3. #3 TikiHead
    January 26, 2006

    Looks like it’s been settled with faculty discussion.


  4. #4 Ginger Yellow
    January 26, 2006

    “It would be no different than a Jewish or Muslim teacher refusing to post the school’s lunch menu because it contained pork.”

    Not only that, but surely by refusing to post them they are sending the message “This is not a safe place for you”. Which is a lovely thing for a teacher to do.

  5. #5 spyder
    January 26, 2006

    Of all the signs that are being put up on public school campuses, one that is nicely colored with the words SAFE SPACE on it seems to be, well, understated. Zero tolerance this, zero tolerance that, drug free, tobacco free, gun free, ad nauseum– but the stink is over safe space??? Sad day in our culture, when as Ginger Yellow suggest: we can’t have a zero tolerance for “unsafe place.” Maybe there are too many zero tolerance signs and these folks are feeling like providing no tolerance at all for the things they believe in???

  6. #6 Don K
    January 26, 2006

    Let me get this straight (sorry…) — the teachers’ religion compels them to condone students beating the crap out of other students? Wow… I had no idea that’s what’s taught in Christian churches these days.

  7. #7 ZacharySmith
    January 26, 2006

    I guess zero tolerance for violence goes out the window when it comes to gays in the eyes of these people.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    January 26, 2006

    I think that’s probably a little unfair. I don’t think the fact that a teacher refuses to put up such a sign necessarily means that they endorse harrassment or bullying of gay students. There are many potential reasons why they might object to it other than that, all of which I think are bad reasons, but there’s no reason to presume the worst about them.

  9. #9 David
    January 26, 2006

    I agree with Ed about attributing motivation. Our school has had very little in the way of gay bashing beyond the level of thoughtless comment (“that’s so gay” and the like) so when the students from the GLSEN chapterI advised went around to place safe space signs they were surprised by the number of rejections. In each case the teacher used the “condoning” argument. The interesting part is that someof those same teachers were actually quite sensitive to verbal harassment and vigilent in preventing it. They just could not stand the thought of appearing to countenance homosexuality.

  10. #10 Treban
    January 26, 2006

    I am a christian and I cannot believe that those who claim to be the same can support the bullying and harrassment of gays or anyone else the way these teachers do. It is clear by their refusal to display signs reassuring kids that they need not fear being bullied for who they are that they must support such abuse. Of course the excerpt doesn’t claim they are christians but unfortunately they seem to be the ones who pull this kind of crap.

  11. #11 Ginger Yellow
    January 26, 2006

    I’m not attributing a motivation to them. I’m just saying that’s the message their action sends. Schoolkids, especially gay and other vulnerable ones, get enough of a hard time from their peers. They don’t need their teachers to tell them, consciously or unconsciously, that they’re not welcome.

  12. #12 David
    January 26, 2006

    I agree entirely with Ginger Yellow’s last post. That is exactly the reason that students in our (relatively) safe high school saw the need to form a Gay Lesbian Straight Educational Network. Actions speak much louder than words.

  13. #13 decrepitoldfool
    January 26, 2006

    Lots of staff and faculty have those signs in their offices at our university. I don’t have one, even though I fully support gay rights and self-expression, because to get one you have to sit through a series of seminars given by a few individuals who feel free to bash my ethnic group and gender all the time. I am aware some people hate white males but see no reason to subject myself to it to prove my ‘tolerance cred.’

  14. #14 Gretchen
    January 27, 2006

    I appreciate the intent of the sign, but instead of including symbols that represent homosexuality specifically (rainbows and pink triangles), why not indicate that harrassment for ANY reason will not be tolerated? School should not simply be a “gay safe” zone; it should be a zone where students are safe from torment or assault, period. Being safe to be “who you are” includes a lot more than sexual orientation.

    Suggestion: either remove the gay-specific symbols, or include symbols or photographs that make the above sentiment clear.

  15. #15 thekeez
    January 27, 2006

    Interesting protest to the sign – saying it infringes on their religious freedom. Which would mean that any objection to homosexuality is a religious objection – which makes the whole issue of homosexual rights an issue of religious freedom, not civil rights.

    If the conservatives want to make it a religious freedom issue, bring it on…thekeez

  16. #16 ZacharySmith
    January 27, 2006

    Ed –

    While I agree that these guys are probably not explicitly advocating an anti-gay pogrom, I think the implication is, intentional or not, indifference at best (“Take your problems elsewhere, fag”) to downright hostile (“There’s no safe space for you here.”)

  17. #17 thekeez
    January 27, 2006

    No – I disagree. I think religo-conservos do want to have an anti-gay environment in order to “persuade” gays to either go straight or at least keep it in the closet…where it doesn’t make the self-righteous feel all squishy inside…thekeez

  18. #18 decrepitoldfool
    January 27, 2006

    “School should not simply be a “gay safe” zone; it should be a zone where students are safe from torment or assault, period. Being safe to be “who you are” includes a lot more than sexual orientation.”

    Very good. Kids who, for instance, like to read and study a lot, should not have to fear reprisals from kids who are ‘studying’ to be French-fry delivery specialists.

  19. #19 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2006

    I certainly agree that schools should be safe places for everyone, but that’s really not the issue here. The question addressed in this post was not whether the school board chose the best possible option, but whether the teachers have a religious freedom argument that might win in court.

    I’m also not sure I agree that some problems shouldn’t be singled out for particular attention. I was the typical smart kid in high school too, captain of the debate team and all that, and I took some flak from the idiots as would be expected. But I certainly wouldn’t compare that to what a gay kid goes through, not in a million years. As a society, we don’t have thousands of preachers declaring that smart people are going to hell (well, not explicitly anyway) or advocating “intelligence reversion therapy”. Families don’t disown smart children and throw them out of their lives. When a smart kid gets called an “egghead” or a “Poindexter”, it’s a mild sting at worst; when a gay kid gets called a fag, it can cut a lot worse because of this vast cultural background of bigotry that comes with it. Given that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with addressing that form of bigotry directly and distinctly.

  20. #20 David
    January 27, 2006

    I sympathize with the comments above. It would be nice to have schools safe across the board and to assume that a generic campaign would reduce all manner of harassment and descrimintion. There should be nothing special about the treatment of gays. While gay rights ought to be simply human rights, that is not realistic. When we were going through the hoops to create the GLSEN chapter, it was repeatedly suggested that we form a broader diversity coalition to combat all forms of harassment and discrimination. The kids consistantly maintained that such a course would defeat their purposes because gay rights were the area most likely to be neglected in an umbrella group. They feared that the proposal would become in effect a way of avoiding attention to gay issues and burying them in something more acceptable to the general public. Therefore they insisted on an organization targeting the specific topic. In the end they convinced me and the school administration.

  21. #21 Roman Werpachowski
    January 27, 2006

    I agree that the signs should not single out gays. Schools should be safe for everyone. This sign sends a message: “if you are gay, we will protect you. If you are harassed for other reasons, get lost.”

  22. #22 Darren
    January 27, 2006

    I’m a gay-friendly teacher and object to these signs. Singling out gay students goes beyond the protection/tolerance issue and into the realm of advocacy.

    I like the overall “safe school” motif, as I mentioned on my own blog. The triangle (or rainbow flag, but not both) would be one of several symbols of groups who might be “oppressed”–throw in a Star of David for good measure.

    This topic reminds me of hate crimes legislation, which I don’t support. Beating someone up is *wrong*, whether you do it for their money or because you don’t like their religion or sexual orientation. Beating someone up is battery and should be punished as such, with no gradations. In the schools, harrassment and/or bullying should be punished equally harshly whether the reason for the harrassment is sexual orientation, academic achievement, style of dress, etc. Saying “Don’t beat up the overachievers” sounds dumb, doesn’t it? Saying “Beat anyone up and the weight of the law will come down upon you” pretty much covers it.

    My 2 cents.

  23. #23 Roman Werpachowski
    January 27, 2006


    punishment for the crime may and should vary according to the intent of the criminal. Killing a doctor who screwed up operating your wife and caused her to die should not be punished as severely as killing somebody for money, or just for the “fun”. I guess the lawmakers thought that beating someone out of racial/religious/other hatred is worse than just beating up because you had a quarrell. Of course, the problem is that the definition of the “hate crime” will never include every possible case.

  24. #24 Darren
    January 28, 2006

    Roman: I don’t accept your argument. It completely screws up our legal system.

    I’m willing to accept the ancient common law “self defense” and “heat of passion” defenses in extenuation, but other than that I’m not all that interested in the motivation of the criminal. I have no desire to be the thought police. I believe in punishing actions, not thoughts. I view your examples as supporting *my* contention here: if you kill the doctor immediately after getting the news, it might be heat of passion; otherwise, it’s premeditated murder. Cop an insanity plea. Beating someone up is beating someone up, whether it’s for money or for fun or because you don’t like their religion/orientation/etc.

    I can’t imagine how one person could be beat up at an ATM for money, and a second could be beat up at an ATM because he/she is homosexual, and both of those crimes not be punished exactly the same. Please explain, *clearly*, why the second crime is worse and deserves a harsher punishment.

    Freakin’ hate crimes. How many people kill or bully or beat up or rob someone out of *love*? It’s time to get out of this motivation business and punish actual crimes.

  25. #25 Roman Werpachowski
    January 28, 2006

    You’re right about the doctor thing. It’s either passion or premeditated murder. But passion sometimes may last very long, it’s an individual thing. It’s also a different thing than just being “thought police”: the act has been done. There is no way someone can claim they are punished for their thoughts when they pulled the bloody trigger!

    Suppose you’re at the ATM. A mean-looking person approaches. Two choices:

    A) He wants your money or else he’ll beat you up. You give him the money and avoid being beaten up (I assume you are not able to defend yourself adequately and there is no way/time to call the cops).
    B) He wants to beat you up because he knows you’re gay/different religion/different ethnicity/whatever. There is no way you will escape being beaten up (remember, you are not able to defend yourself adequately and there is not way/time to call the cops).

    Which choice out of two do you prefer? Any sane person will pick A), because there less chance there of being physically harmed. That’s why, out of pragmatism, law can focus on the second crime more and punish it harder. I’m not saying you have to see it as just or moral, it’s pure pragmatism here. Since we’ll never weed out all crimes, let’s weed out first those which are harder to live with.

  26. #26 TikiHead
    January 28, 2006

    Isn’t this whole controversy about ‘protesting for religious reasons’ quite similar to some Chritians being against the HPV vaccine? I think first and foremost a nonevil, compassionate person is AGAINST cancer. Forget the slippery slope of possible increased promiscuity in the event of an HPV vaccine. We must be against the suffering caused by cancer FIRST — considerations of ‘sin’ come later.

    It’s the same with some Christians’ attitudes towards gay tolerance. They abhor homosexuality as a sin, that’s fine. But they seem willing to throw away compassion to express that abhorrence.

    Something wrong there, morally. But, as I posted above, the school haas settled this dispute — it may arise again elswhere.

  27. #27 Jillian
    January 29, 2006

    I have a slightly different perspective on the whole thing…

    I was involved with a college gay/straight group back in the mid 90s, and we helped to get “safe zone” stickers out to a number of professors on campus.

    But they didn’t just get stickers – they got literature about the coming out process, common emotional responses that people on the receiving end of a gay bashing often have, and some pointers on how to talk to people who are suffering because of conflict caused by their sexual orientation, along with phone numbers to reach out to for more help. The sticker is NOT supposed to be just an indication that the person whose office it adorns isn’t a homophobe; it’s to indicate that the person is an advocate. The idea is that if a student needs to talk to someone about any of the myriad of issues that being gay in an intolerant culture raises, they can seek out someone who has that sticker and get advice. Good, useful advice – not just “pray to Jesus that he delivers you from this sinful lifestyle”.

    I don’t know if the legal atmosphere in a high school would be different (my familiarity with the program comes from a university, where any students being counselled would have attained the age of majority), but I think the point remains the same: if a teacher is NOT accepting of homosexuality, then they SHOULDN’T have the sticker. The purpose of the program is to direct students to teachers who can support and encourage them, not dump further prejudice on them.

    And unfortunately, freedom of religion means that if a person thinks that god wants them to be a vicious, petty hate mongerer, then we cannot compel them by law to be anything else. We can make them behave civilly in public, but we can’t make them not be bigots.

  28. #28 Ed Brayton
    January 29, 2006

    That’s the best argument I’ve heard on this subject so far, Jillian. Makes a lot of sense. And if I was an administrator, I would not require teachers to put them up, largely for that reason.

  29. #29 Darren
    January 30, 2006

    Jillian, I was with you until the end. Are you saying that anyone who has a religious objection to homosexuality is a vicious, petty hatemoner and a bigot? Wow, lose the name-calling and get some tolerance and understanding of your own. Accept that some people can disagree with you without being stupid.


  30. #30 Roman Werpachowski
    January 30, 2006

    Jillian, I was with you until the end. Are you saying that anyone who has a religious objection to homosexuality is a vicious, petty hatemoner and a bigot? Wow, lose the name-calling and get some tolerance and understanding of your own. Accept that some people can disagree with you without being stupid.

    There is a difference between considering homosexual practices a sin (which is the official Catholic position, for example) and hating homosexuals. Remember what St Augustine said “hate the sin, not the sinner”. I think one could support safe zones for any oppressed minorities, including homosexuals, while not necessarily accepting everything these minorities do. Tolerance is not equal to acceptance.

  31. #31 Gretchen
    January 30, 2006

    People with religious objections to homosexuality may not be “vicious, petty hate-mongers,” but I do consider them to be bigots. “God told me that being homosexual is bad” as a basis for prejudice is no different, qualitatively, from “I think that being homosexual is bad,” except that the latter version makes a person feel that they can claim to be “just following orders.” But worshipping a bigotted God makes you a bigot as well, no matter how you spin it. People once believed (and in some places, still do) that being black or female are bad based on religious authority as well.

  32. #32 Gretchen
    January 30, 2006

    Sorry, I meant “the former version.”

  33. #33 Darren
    January 30, 2006

    Now God himself is bigoted. Wonderful.

  34. #34 Ed Brayton
    January 30, 2006


    I think Gretchen is correct when she says that if one is bigoted, the claim that God tells them to be so does not resolve them of bigotry. I don’t think that merely thinking that homosexuality is sinful makes one a bigot, but that’s not really relevant to this argument. If someone is bigoted against a group, whether homosexuals or those of a different color or religion, they don’t magically become un-bigoted merely by claiming that God endorses that bigotry.

  35. #35 Roman Werpachowski
    January 30, 2006

    I can only speak about the Catholic religion, which I know (though I’m not an active practitioner). It doesn’t say “being homosexual is bad”. It says “engaging in homosexual sex is bad”. It’s a difference.

  36. #36 Jillian
    January 30, 2006

    If God has a problem with homosexuals, then God is bigoted. Because bigotry is something we all have a pretty good understanding of – it involves ascribing difference in people due to non-relevant characteristics. The only time it’s not bigotry to “have an objection” to homosexuality is when you are deciding whom you personally wish to have sex with.

    Or else, bigotry is whatever God happens to like or dislike, in which case there is no reasonable standard as to what bigotry is, because God is beyond human reason.

    You pays your money, you takes your chances. Euthyphro dealt with this problem long before any of us did, and to no satisfactory conclusion. You’re welcome to try to do a better job than Plato did, if you like. I suspect there’s a massive amount of grant money in it for you if you do.

    And you know what? I’m not tolerant of intolerance. I don’t even think I particularly have to be.

    “Vicious, petty hate-mongerer” is harsh language, I admit, but it’s hard for me to phrase it any more politely when so many of the people I love are the targets of the anti-homosexuality brigade.

    I believe in freedom of religion, and it’s a freedom I will defend with the greatest of fierceness – but that doesn’t mean I will ever temper my ire (or my language)at any of the stupid, hateful, nasty things that get promulgated in the name of religion. To put it bluntly: every American has the Constitutionally guaranteed right to be a bigot, but they don’t have the right to be protected from being called a bigot. In the harshest language possible.

    If you don’t like it, don’t be a bigot.

  37. #37 Jillian
    January 30, 2006

    Not “you” personally, but in the general sense.

    Just to clarify.

  38. #38 Gretchen
    January 31, 2006


    You have a point, but it has been my experience that most people who believe homosexual acts to be a sin consider a homosexual to be one who performs homosexual acts. That is, they define it by the behavior– once you stop performing the acts, you’re not a homosexual. Hence all of these “reform” outfits who claim that they’ve gotten somebody to stop being gay just because they’ve gotten him to stop sleeping with guys.

    So if that’s your approach, saying “engaging in homosexual acts is bad” and “being homosexual is bad” are the same thing, because the acting and the being are the same. It’s only conflating the sinner with the sin in the sense of saying that one who steals is a thief, therefore it’s bad to be a thief.

  39. #39 Jillian
    January 31, 2006


    I’ve found a good way to challenge people who seem to think that gay people are only gay when they’re having gay sex is to apply the same standard back to them.

    Ask them if they think they’re only heterosexual when they’re mid-coitus.

    I haven’t yet gotten anyone to concede my point by doing that, but I have gotten them to stop making this particular argument, which makes me believe that at least they’re thinking about it.

  40. #40 Roman Werpachowski
    January 31, 2006

    Of course God is a bigot. The biggest sin you may do is not believe in him (see the New Testament). It’s pure bigotry!

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